Mailbag: Tennis is better for Olympics, despite high-profile withdrawals
- The risk/reward proposition for Olympic tennis, plus questions on Monfils vs. Kyrgios, wildcards and more.
Hey everyone, housekeeping:
1) Happy Olympics, everyone. I’ll be part of the NBC coverage on Bravo and will try and bang out some columns and Mailbags so feel free to fire questions/comments/rants.
2) Last week’s SI Beyond the Baseline Podcast guest: Jason Collins, who was terrific.
3) This week’s guest: Glenn Greenwald, Pulitzer Prize winner, Brazil resident and tennis fan.
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @jon_wertheim.
Jon, every time I look at my phone, it seems a new player has pulled out of the Olympics. What’s going on? Is it really Zika fears? You have always talked up tennis in the Olympics. It seems like the players don’t agree with you.
—Doug, Portland, Maine
• Fair question. And, yes, the list of players who have pulled out of Rio in the past few weeks is regrettably long. There are a few issues here. One is simply ill luck. The absences of Sharapova, Azarenka and Federer have nothing to do with Rio or the Olympics. None of them will be at the U.S. Open either.
The disruption caused by the distance to Brazil is a factor. In 2012, when the Games were in London, you were basically asking players to extend the agreement on the Wimbledon rental homes. No problem. The players knew the venue. They knew the Village. Many were sufficiently close to their base that they could fly home for a day, if need be. It was not prohibitively expensive to fly in a coach or physio.
Rio—and nor that matter Tokyo in 2020—is much more of a logistical challenge. Elena Vesnina, take it away:
Urgent🔴Anyone who is flying tomorrow 2nd of August from Miami to Rio,who is not sure,that u wanna go!please give us any 2 seats to Rio!🙏🙏🙏— Elena Vesnina (@EVesnina001) August 2, 2016
You’re talking about a long flight a different continent. Many players are flying from Canada to Rio and then back to….Cincinnati. It’s also a lot of expense for a tournament that neither pays in prize money nor ranking points. That’s what we call a big ask. And that’s before accounting for deterrents like Zika and crime and an absence of amenities. Yes, they may have been exaggerated. Yes, they may convenient excuses in some cases. But if you’re debating not playing, it’s easy to see how these factors bear on your thinking.
I still say the Olympics matter. For certain players it will define their careers. (See: Massu, Nicolas). For the stars—especially from smaller countries—it will cement their greatness. We know Andy Murray won gold in London before we know about any of his non-Slam results. If Djokovic were to win gold for Serbia, it will mark a national event. And the whole “Olympic experience” cannot be underrated.
Tennis is better for this showcase and opportunity. The Games are better for the inclusion of tennis, this relentlessly global, dual-gendered sport. Complications and all, most players still rank the Olympics beneath a Slam but above any other tournament. But, the risk/reward proposition isn’t what it was four years ago.
If I were a cynical conspiracy-theorist, I would wonder whether the decision not to award ranking points at the Olympics was a way to indirectly discourage players from going to an event that could put their health at risk while simultaneously hurting the economics of traditional summer tour stops. Thoughts?
• Good point, but I stop short of calling it a conspiracy theory. I think the tours’ tournament leadership essentially said, “Wait. The Olympics ravage our summer events every four years and now we are going to reward and validate the Games by awarding rankings points, which also incentivizes players? Nah, I don't think so, thanks.”
Hey Jon, I'm going to be a little cliché here and say that I love your articles and your insight on tennis. I have a concern. A lot of the youngsters are doing well and have their moments that are then followed by slumps. From Zverev late in the year to Thiem since the French, these youngsters just can't seem to make real strides. When are we going to see the next new Slam winners?
—Utkarsh Sharma, Texas
• Just to be clear, no flattery is required. But thanks. As we are fond of saying: careers don't come with linear correlations. These uneven trajectories are totally normal. It stands to reason that a player like Thiem would hit the proverbial wall, (having played 63 matches before the end of July) or that Zverev would be hot-and-cold in this, his 19th year. Neither Thiem nor Zverev is playing the Olympics so let’s see how they acquit themselves at the U.S. Open.
To me, the inconsistent results only underscore the ritual excellence of Federer/Nadal/Djokovic/Murray. Their reliability is all more comical/admirable when you look at the rest of the field. While we’re here: We can (and do) discuss whether it’s the Big Three or the Big Four. But Murray’s achievements are ridiculous. He’s been to the semis (or better) of a major 20 (!) times now and hasn’t lost before the fourth round since 2008. You see the slumps and erratic play of other guys—in the top ten, but also among the purported “young guns”—and you realize the exceptional level at the very top.
I'm not sure which surprised me more, your omission of the s after the apostrophe for the possessive of Connors or your inclusion of Connors rather than Borg or Agassi in your top four.
Also, that whole "you can judge a man by his kids" is a tired and reductive cliché. After hearing that all of last week in reference to Trump's kids, I have no patience for it. It ignores the effects of money, power and privilege on children's outcomes. It just sounds like something positive to say about a person for whom there's really nothing positive to say.
Anyway, on to tennis! I'm trying to find some hope to cling to about Federer's future, and I find a bit of comfort in the fact that the injury was caused by a freak accident unrelated to tennis and not by the wear and tear of playing.
—Ranjit Gupte, New York, New York
• One of the beauties and frustrations of all this GOAT talk and ranking of the best ever is the absence of steadfast criteria. Me? I put a lot of stock in longevity. Serena, for instance, won her first major in 1999. Seventeen years later, she’s still going strong. That should count for a lot. Likewise, Connors was a threat in his late 30s. Borg was a cipher—and won no majors—after age 25.
I love your weekly column, but I have to take exception to the comments regarding wild cards. The ATP has one stop in Canada at the Rogers Cup, which is the Canadian championships.
The Maestro has endless opportunities for wild cards in the EU, let us root for our home grown talent who don't receive wild cards in other parts of the world. Oh, and Kyrgios: it's a bold tweet when you were beaten by a kid ranked No. 370.
• A lot of you took issue with that. To be clear, this isn’t specific to Canada. I have a fundamental issue with wild cards, in general, especially at the biggest events. They fly in the face of fairness; they undercut the meritocracy of tennis, one its great virtues; they can be even be used as currency, which is terribly distasteful.
Wild cards are a necessary evil at lesser events. You have promoters investing in tournaments in, say New Haven or Hamburg and you want to arm them with the ability to slide a local kid into the draw or recruit a star at the last minute? That’s fine.
But in the case of Masters 1000s events, on the one hand, you are saying these are so important and prestigious that they are mandatory for the top players. Yet you are then are willing to give a few slots to kids who—by happy accident of birth—come from the host country or, worse, are managed by the same company that owns and operates the tournament? So it is that Radek Stepanek—current rank of 32—was in the qualies draw last week while Steven Diez, ranked, 173, was in the main draw. That’s just not right; especially since there are no Czech events of the same stature so it’s not as though there will ever be reciprocity for Stepanek (and hundreds of other players from smaller countries).
An imperfect analogy: this is like Stanford putting aside some admission slots for kids from Palo Alto, even if—by orders of magnitude—they are objectively less qualified than other applicants. The difference, of course, is that, as a) as a private institution, Stanford can do as it pleases and b) Stanford isn’t half-owned by the “applicants,” the way the ATP and WTA are.
This my take on our hypocrisy of embracing Monfils showmanship and criticizing Kyrgios' antics. I think we don't really expect Monfils to be a top three player so if his "flair" causes his ranking to be 20 instead of 10 we don't care that much. But, we fully expect (hope) Kyrgios to be a player to topple the big four and hence our chagrin at his antics. What do you think?
—Hareesh, Montville, N.J.
• Very good. I would add that Monfils is thoroughly inoffensive. He goes about his business with a smile. His antics hurt no one other than himself. Other players—male and female—like him or, at a minimum, are amused by him. Kyrgios, on the other hand, comes with an edge. As the French say, “He has corners.” Between/among berating officials, rankling the Pat Rafter* types and the Wawrinka line cross, Kyrgios leaves a trail of aggrieved parties.
*Here’s a good rule of (opposable) thumb: if you have somehow managed to get on Pat Rafter’s bad side, odds are good, you’re in the wrong.
Any chance of getting the great John McPhee on a podcast? I just finished reading Levels of the Game and would love to hear the reporting and writing process for that one.
• Love it. Can’t recall if I’ve ever discussed this in the past, but I got to know Professor McPhee several years ago when we taught in the same classroom. Just a delightful guy, but it took a half-dozen interactions before I could fully suppress the fan boy instincts and have a normal conversation.
Errani and Vinci back together again?? (Though just saw they lost.) Is this just a one-time thing, for the Olympics? Or more of a ServPro, Like It Never Even Happened reunion?
—Helen of Philly
• You know what they say: Olympics make for strange bedfellows.
Jon, what are the chances this famous New York family will make a another appearance at this year's U.S. Open, and how do you think this year's appearance will compare to this one?
• And here it is, your moment of Zen….
• Thanks to Ted Ying from Laurel, Md., for an interesting trivia fact: this week (July 25, 2016) marks Djokovic's 209th week as No. 1 putting him in fifth place all-time in the most weeks at No. 1 on the ATP tour. Martina Hingis holds the No. 5 spot on the WTA tour list with....209 weeks.
• This week’s reader rant is from William Carson: With Federer’s announcement that his 2016 season is over, I revisited my thoughts of my February 2016 note. I was right, I now have no interest in the U.S. Open. Despite the fact the Novak and Murray are future HoF’ers, they grew and developed their games in the era of being pinned to the baseline, with maximum velocity on every point. Both guys usually have more drop shots than volleys during a match. SKILLED, BUT NOT ENTERTAINING. Length of matches doesn’t help either. Going to the towel after every point probably adds more than 30 minutes to a five-setter.
The goal of almost all “court” games is to take an advancing, advantageous position towards the net, where, if you do that, you will win the majority of points. Technology and a generation of players who never saw that style of play, has reduced tennis to a niche sport. Sadly, I think it will get worse before getting better. MLB banned the use of aluminum bats; the ITF needs to figure out a way to return interest to the game.
• LLS comes from Helen: Clémence Poésy of The Tunnel and Simona Halep: